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Women on the market: Internet romance in Cameroon

January 23, 2016

I am currently posting on this blog some notes under the broad theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Theorising Media and Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date well hidden from mainstream media and communication studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely if we are going to finally expand this interdisciplinary area of scholarship beyond its customary fixation with the global North.

Notice the precise fieldwork times and sites, the media technologies mentioned, as well as the ‘remote research’ on other cultures (cf. remote ethnography) undertaken by young urban Cameroonian women via the internet and other media.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone
Used with permission

Jennifer Johnson-Hanks (2007) Women on the market: marriage, consumption, and the internet in urban Cameroon American ethnologist 34:4 pp 642-58

Fieldwork in Yaoundé in 1996, 1998, and briefly in 2001: “Internet romance, however, was something that I stumbled on while in the field in 1998. I supplemented the fieldwork with a study of website postings by women from Yaoundé, primarily in 2002, 2003, and 2005” (p. 644)

“Since 1998, several thousand young Cameroonian women have sought European husbands on the Internet, advertising themselves as potential lovers, wives, and mothers on French- and U.S.-registered websites”. However, “the meaning and motivation of e-mail-mediated marriage in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé derives more from local history than from global politics. Cameroonian women are seeking foreign husbands to fulfill local conceptions of proper womanhood and legitimate marriage” (p. 642) transposed out of bridewealth marriage.

Data focuses on the yoyettes: unmarried women, literate, educated, teachers, store clerks, students or businesswomen (p. 643), the first Cameroonian generation that could expect high school for girls not from the most elite families (p. 644). Yos and yoyettes learn about distant places via TV, novels and CDs and these ideas shape their “hopes, intentions and self-descriptions” (p. 644)

When women advertise themselves online seeking a husband, they seek a man who fits the characteristics of Beti schemata about marriage and honor (p. 645). Female honor suggests that women should be independent earners, yet boyfriends and husbands “should express their emotional commitments in financial ways” by buying them things and this increases the standing of women (p. 646).

Many young, educated women want a “modern” marriage: monogamous, based on love and financially secure; but also admit that a proper bridewealth marriage is no longer possible because the ethical framework for traditional marriage has been lost (p. 648).

“As men gave up felling and farming and moved to the city, cultural schemata of marriage as labor exchange were replaced by aspirations of marriage as shared leisure” (p. 649) supported by access to imported, canned foods and modern conveniences.

Desirable husbands now combine local and modern traits: urbane, fluent in French, attractive, well-dressed, providing true love and economic security (p. 650). Disjuncture between women’s expectations of men and aspirations for marriage vs. real life opportunities has played a role in declining marriage rates (p. 651). Marriage rates are not declining because it is losing importance, but because it remains “so terribly important to women’s status that it be done well” (p. 652)

Unable to find suitable husbands at home, yoyettes turned to the Internet, integrating this new digital commodity into a conception of romance and marriage “already dense with consumption” (p. 653). Seeking a husband started with glossy magazine catalogues in the 1990s and turned to Internet in 1998.

Although access to France and the US came with TV and advertising, “it is through the Internet that they have some hope of speaking back to these foreign places” (p. 653) and “One of the things that they most want to say is that they are interested in marrying white men and moving to Europe” (p. 653).

Beti women seeking foreign husbands on the web use many of the same criteria that they do in seeking local husbands, but turn to the internet because “they feel that Cameroonian men can no longer fulfill their part of the marriage bargain” (p. 654) In an attempt to avoid disappointment, “yoyettes interpret e-mail romance as a chance to learn the “true face” of prospective partners” (p. 654).

“Cameroonian women seeking foreign husbands on the Internet are doing something counterintuitive: using a new, transnational technology to achieve old, local aims when the old, local methods for achieving those aims no longer suffice” (p. 655)

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